Book reviews / Non fiction / Read Harder

Book review: The Design of Everyday Things

I’ve decided to try the Read Harder challenge this year, inspired by one of my friends. Number 17 on the list is a ‘business book’ and the advice on the Goodreads community was something in the Amazon business category (or subcategories), which I think means this meets the criteria!

So what is this book all about? I kind of think of it as a catalogue of how not to design, followed by the better way to design things. It’s about human-centred design or prototyping, testing, getting feedback and iterating. Which was all terribly familiar as this is built into my everyday life at work. I generally work on multi-disciplinary teams where there are often user researchers and designers among software developers, performance analysts and content designers. So a lot of this wasn’t knew, but it gave insight into where all these concepts that I just worked with over the last 7 years came from.

And it’s a fantastic read, if sometimes really infuriating. For example, pointing out all the ways things are not designed with humans in mind (or not tested in real life environments). I’m now mad at my oven for its poor design thanks to Donald Norman. I’ve lived in this flat for more than a year and about 95% of the time user the same burner. Now I know why, bad design, and the one burner having the easiest signifier on the controls to match the burner. Also, it made a terribly experience at the airport more terrible because I recognised that it was terribly designed.

But there was another bit which I really enjoyed and it was the forthright rebuttal of ‘not knowing how everything works.’ Sometimes I feel really bad about not knowing how to do something that my parents might have known to do. But I shouldn’t. Technology has basically made a lot of that knowledge outsourced to something that can do it better, like a smartphone or digital service. The best phrase in the book that summed this up was: “Does the fact that I can no longer remember my own phone number indicate my growing feebleness? No, on the contrary, it unleashes the mind from the petty tyranny of tending to the trivial and allows it to concentrate on the important and the critical.” What a great phrase, the petty tyranny of tending to the trivial.

There was also a whole section on ‘human error’ which was sooooo good. Especially contrasting what happens with the investigation into a mechanical failure (eg looking at the manufacture, if there was a flaw etc) vs what happens when a human element seems to have fail – basically the investigation is stopped and the person is blamed. But the source of the error still exists, either a problem with the design of complex systems or processes. Similarly, the reason why really complex problems don’t get solved or better solutions don’t get adopted are due to ‘legacy’ infrastructure. Oh man, do I ever understand that.

It’s great and so down to earth as a read, probably more accessible than other ‘business books.’ If you’re planning on doing the Read Harder challenge or just want to pick up an interesting book, this is definitely a good choice. It’s certainly already changed my perception of things and will definitely be useful not just in work but in everyday life.

One thought on “Book review: The Design of Everyday Things

  1. Pingback: My Read Harder list | Blogendorff

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